Should Gentiles follow Torah?
By Ellen Kavanaugh
Acts 15:19-22 "Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren."
his passage seems to show there are only four rules given to Gentiles coming into the faith. While the Torah wasn't forced on Gentiles all at once, it was understood they would learn it gradually over time, hearing it each week in the synagogues. For that matter, Torah wasn't forced on Israel in a day either -- they too received it over time.
Acts 15:21 "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day."
Christians generally ignore this verse in the passage because the ramifications are obvious: What has Torah being taught each week in synagogues have to do with Gentile believers? Why is it being mentioned here along with the 'four laws'? Because the Gentiles were to *learn Torah* each week in the synagogues! They are being started off on these four laws so they would have the bare basics to begin fellowshiping with their Jewish brethren and they would learn the rest of Torah each shabbat at synagogue. Only after pointing out the Gentiles would learn Torah weekly "did it please the apostles and elders" (vs 22)
to send this letter out to the various churches.
Acts 15:5-11 "But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?"
Rather than isolate one verse alone and build on that, one must look at the whole chapter. Only in proper context will the meaning become clear. 1) What group was demanding conversion by circumcision and Torah observance? 2) How was the "Torah of Moshe" defined by the group demanding it? 3) What was the apostle's response to *this particular group*'s demand and why? 4) What does other scripture teach regarding observance for believers (Gentile and Jewish)? Only after answering these questions can one arrive at what this passage is really teaching.
It was understood by all the apostles that God's Torah never changed or was replaced. We know this from the teachings of Yeshua -- heaven and earth will pass away before one yod or stroke from written Torah will (Matt 5:17,18). We also know that Yeshua considered the "traditions of man" not equal to written Torah, in fact, sometimes the oral tradition violated the written Torah (Mark 7:9). The apostles upheld written Torah but frowned on the legalism of oral law. So who is making the demands in Acts 15:5? The *Pharisees* are. So, Acts 15 is basically dealing with whether Gentiles needed to convert according to Pharisaic tradition; that is, become proselytes to Pharisaic Judaism.
We know Gentiles could be saved without becoming proselytes --- the believing of Cornelius and his family proves this. Cornelius was a God-fearer, a 'ger'/righteous Gentile, one who had believed in the God of Israel but had not actually undergone the conversion rituals to become a proselyte. Now, from a 20th century perspective, circumcision may seem to some as only one law out of many in Torah. But from the 1st century perspective, circumcision was the means of making a proselyte. That is why circumcision is being singled out as a demand apart from its inclusion in the Torah. Torah-observance in general isn't the issue -- conversion is. Notice the Pharisaic complaint wasn't "we demand they eat kosher and keep the Law of Moses" or "we demand they observe the Sabbath and keep the Law of Moses." Both these would be ridiculously redundant since Law of Moses already included both of these individual laws. No, circumcision is singled out not as merely '1 of the 613 laws' but instead as the means of making a proselyte to Pharisaic Judaism.
Circumcision had become a conversion ritual by the Pharisees just as baptism is often misused today as a means of "joining a particular church." If I refuse to be baptised in the Morman church, surely you'd see mine is a rejection of Mormanism -- NOT baptism itself! So the apostles reject this Pharisaic demand that Gentiles undergo the Pharisaic circumcision. Theirs was *not* a rejection of circumcision or Torah, but a rejection instead of Pharisaic conversion rituals. The gospel was being received by Gentiles *without* them becoming proselytes -- so this conversion by circumcision wasn't required. Note that God "made no distinction between us and them" (Acts 15:9)
to show God was accepting Gentiles *without* them converting first.
"Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" Acts 15:7-11
Now Kefa argued against this attempt of the Pharisees to put a yoke on the new believers, a yoke neither they nor their fathers could bear; this yoke is the Pharisaic oral tradition. Yeshua taught:
"The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers." Matt 23:2-4
Note the warning a few verses later:
"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves." Matt 23:15
Note that oral tradition is a burden -- man attempts to enslave others; but God's Way is freedom. Yeshua proclamed:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach freedom to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord." Luke 4:18,19 (Isaiah 61:1)
Liberty is already defined in Ps 119:
"So shall I keep thy law continually for ever and ever. And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts." Ps 119:44,45
Note What God says to His redeemed Israelites:
"I am the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that ye should not be their bondmen; and I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright." Leviticus 26:13
God didn't give His Torah only to re-enslave Israel. Torah is freedom. Torah is never a yoke. It is man's additions to God's laws that are the yoke.
Now let's look at the Pharisaic demand that Gentiles keep the Torah of Moshe. To the Pharisees, the "Torah of Moshe" meant both the oral and written law -- they consider both parts 'inspired.' Pharisees would never word that as "We demand they keep Torah of Moshe and *also our man-made additions to it*." What group, believing their traditions to be equal to Torah, would disparage their own teachings in this way? So, when the Pharisees say "keep Torah of Moshe" they mean written *and* oral parts -- they make no distinction between the two. Yet some argue that because Kefa and James didn't point out, case by case, why they were rejecting the demands of the Pharisees, that somehow by their silence they were also discounting written Torah. May it never be! It's far better to realize that Kefa and James were rejecting a religious system of the day (Pharisaic Judaism), a belief system that included some things they agreed with (written Torah) and some things they didn't (making proselytes - enforcing oral torah). As a more modern example, I reject the teachings of certain Christian denominations -- but that doesn't mean I reject the Holy Bible too just because these denominations also use it in their teachings. The apostolic rejection of Pharisaic Judaism is NOT a rejection of written Torah.
Acts 15 shows that the early Gentile believers were given four starter laws, and were to learn the rest of Torah each week in the synagogues. Gentile believers were NOT required to formally convert to Pharisaic Judaism because God had already accepted them without them becoming proselytes.
The Four Rules
"But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood."
"Abstain From Pullution Of Idols And From Fornication"
I tie these two prohibitions together, since Revelation does:
"But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication." Revelation 2:14
"Not withstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols." Revelation 2:20
Let's start with "pollution from idols":
'Pollution' is from the Greek alisgema
(from the verb) alisgeo,
meaning "to pullute" and denotes "a pollution, contamination." and "all the containing associations connected with idolatry including meats from sacrifices offered to idols." (Vines) But why is such a prohibition necessary, afterall, believers worship God -- not idols! Sha'ul writes: "So, then, as to the question of taking food offered to images, we are certain that an image is nothing in the world, and that there is no God but one." 1 Corinthians 8:4.
Sha'ul is establishing here that the prohibition against meats offered to idols is NOT because an idol has any power -- an idol is nothing. It's because in eating such meats, we witness to others that the idol *does* have some meaning, we basically empower an 'idol.' For this reason, believers don't have to ask if meat being purchased had been offered to an idol - for the question itself would indicate an idol was *something* and could somehow affect the meat being bought. Again, an idol is *nothing*. Sha'ul wasn't incorporating a "don't ask, don't tell" policy as some teach. Sha'ul was really arguing that unless someone else's words condemn the meat, believers should proceed clean-heartedly knowing all things come from God alone. Sha'ul concludes with "For this reason, if food is a cause of trouble to my brother, I will give up taking meat for ever, so that I may not be a cause of trouble to my brother."
Always remember that the problem with meats offered to idols was that it gave validation to pagan rituals and undermined the fact that God alone is sovereign. We should engage in NO activity that sends out a message to the contrary. For example, If I light a candle because my power goes out, fine. If I light a candle and say "Blessed be Ba'al" I have commited idol worship. Let's suppose I lived in a city where a certain color candle was associated with pagan worship -- then I wouldn't purchase or use that color candle even though I know a candle is nothing in and of itself. Candles and meats (or anything) take on the meanings assigned to them, so we should avoid being polluted by idols by not partaking of things given a pagan meaning. In the 1st century that may have meant meats offered to idols, but we can apply this rule to many things. We worship God alone and should "Abstain from all appearance of evil." 1 Thessalonians 5:22
"And from fornication"
Fornication is from the Greek word porneia
(Strong's 4202). Many assume sexual fornication is meant, but since it's coupled here with idol pollution, I suggest its second meaning was intended, "association of pagan idolatry with doctrines of, professed adherance to, the Christian Faith" (Vines). This definition fits this passage (and others) better and was a known problem among Gentile believers. Sha'ul wrote: "But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain." Gal 4:9-11.
Clearly this 'mixing of idols with God's Truth' was a problem among early Gentile believers just as it is today. Many modern church 'holidays' are still tied into idalatry -- Saturnalia/Christmas; Goddess Eastros/Easter; Sun-god/Sunday worship, etc.. Like the 'pollution from idols,' this mixing is validating pagan days, putting them on par with the things of God.
"And From Things Strangled, And From Blood"
'Strangled' comes the Greek pniktos
(Strong's 4156) and means an improperly killed animal -- "animals killed by strangling, without shedding their blood" (Vines). These animals aren't 'clean/kosher' because they still contain blood. "Only thou shalt not eat the blood thereof; thou shalt pour it upon the ground as water." Deut 15:23 "And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. Leviticus 17:10
Note this prohibition *includes* Gentiles (strangers). Yet the modern church ignores these rules and doesn't avoid blood -- bloody beef is readily consumed. Think of those rare-done steaks sitting in a pool of blood -- Yuck. (Not that cooking the meat thoroughly so that the blood is less obvious is any better). Meats should be kashered, completely drained of their blood before consuming.
Notice these four prohibitions don't forbid murder, theft, adultery, lying, etc... that's further proof these four rules were never intended to replace the Torah. These four prohibitions specifically address offensive pagan practices the new believers will have to resist. Without immediate adoption of these four rules, the Jewish believers would be forced to not take meals or socialize with their Gentile brethren. I'd call these four rules 'Torah-lite,' or a 'crash course' in learning their new lifestyle. By observing these four laws, the Gentiles could associate with their Jewish brethren *without* undergoing any conversion, yet still have reached an adequate beginner level of cleanliness and observance in God's eyes. And, of course, Gentiles would learn the rest of Torah each week in the synagogue and their spiritual growth would gradually increase.